A couple of years ago, Forrester Research issued a report that warned that the advent of new technologies – most notably, the Internet of Things (IoT) – would lead to the elimination of one out of every five B2B sales jobs. That’s a million salespeople across the U.S. And, on the surface, that seemed to make sense – with automated ordering, machine learning, and other technologies that make parts of the sales relationship automatic, what use is there for humans in this equation?
Forrester’s report itself pointed out that, in order to remain relevant, sales people who served merely as “order takers” would need to evolve into value sellers. The need for sales talent is increasing even as the role is evolving. But that’s the way sales has always been; a salesperson who sells the same way today as they did 10 years ago is also known as an unemployed salesperson.
And technology today is helping that change occur – as it always has. Over the last century, as sales technology has been introduced, more salespeople have been needed, not fewer. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers prove the point. In 1910, the U.S. had 1,695,000 people working in sales. Compared to the total population, that amounts to one sales person for every 54.4 people in the U.S.
In 1970, when we had 5,677,000 sales people, that ratio had dropped to 1:36.1. By 2000, with 8,855,000 salespeople, it was 1:31.9. Today, with 14,462,120 salespeople at work, the ratio is 1:22.3.
So, anyone want to defend the idea the technology is killing sales? Even with the advent of game changers like the telephone, sales force automation, smart phones, and productivity automation software, salespeople did not die out but are thriving, both in their sheer numbers and as a share of the percentage of the total population.
Sales as a profession is not in danger, but individual salespeople may be threatened. Their biggest threats are not technological threats and exterior forces, but internal qualities that may keep them from evolving at the pace they need in order to survive. Complacency, fear of change, and short-term thinking will pick off salespeople one by one, even as the sales profession evolves and becomes a more powerful force in business.
A few years ago, I had a conversation with sales consultant and expert Jill Konrath that spoke directly to this hazard. She said she was studying the phenomena of behavioral change in sales, which could include the adoption of new technology. When salespeople were under stress and under pressure to perform, they seemed to get over their apprehensions about change. I saw anecdotal evidence of this during the recession of 2008-2011; many sales people entered that period still leery or skeptical about CRM. But as sales became harder to come by, the percentage of salespeople who embraced it spiked.
The salespeople still battling to succeed are not the problem, Jill said. Paradoxically, it’s the successful salespeople she was worried about. When you’re busting your quota and taking home a hefty commissions check, your motivation to change behavior just isn’t there. If it ain’t broke, why fix it, right? As a result, these successful salespeople are unwilling to “walk the path of pain,” as Jill put it – they didn’t want to interrupt their current processes, even if it was easily demonstrated that changed behavior or new technologies would yield much greater rewards in the end.
There are hazards here for both the salesperson and the company they sell for. For the salesperson, this complacency leads them to fall further and further behind their peers when it comes to sales tactics and technologies until they end up faced with the need for a total revamping of how they approach their profession. That “path of pain” is a lot more uncomfortable than incremental evolution, and many of us know salespeople who have retired when confronted with the need to evolve late in a sales career.
For the business, the hazard is that the perceived “A-players” on the sales force are in fact slipping farther and farther behind their potential over time. Without careful analysis – including the use of territory and quota management tools – companies may not realize how much money they’re losing and fail to offer the coaching and other motivations their sales teams need to maintain that status.
The good news is that the next wave of technology for sales is likely to come in a form much easier for salespeople to incorporate into their daily routines. The advent of simple artificial intelligence for sales – more accurately, assistive intelligence or augmentative intelligence – is being preceded by a wave of consumer-focused products that will show salespeople what’s possible. Much like the arrival of the smart phone almost a decade ago, the shift toward this technology may be driven by the salesperson demanding that the A/I he uses at home be brought into the selling process. Adoption is much less of a problem when the user feels like he is the driving force behind a change.
And, when A/I is a common sales tool, we’re likely to see sales roles grow again in number as more people within the business take on these tasks. A/I can help field service, customer support, and other roles scale the learning curve to step into sales roles as needed and as demanded by customers. Meanwhile, the people who carry sales titles will be allowed to focus on their part of the sales process with greater intent and deliver value more frequently. That expanded sales force will require automation to handle its commissions as well – but that’s a topic for a different blog post.
Is technology going to change sales? It always has. Is technology going to kill off salespeople? No – unless salespeople are unwilling to change themselves.